Rubble Kings is a lively, skin-deep telling of how the South Bronx became a legendary 1970s-era tribal war zone that suggested an unbelievable merging of an apocalyptic fantasy with the (non-)rules of the Wild West. It’s a great topic, timelier than ever in an era in which politicians still gut social services, allowing the lower classes to eat themselves alive, only intervening in the context of sporadically administered punishment. Shan Nicholson’s documentary, at its broadest, is about the perils of starving communal infrastructure, causing neighborhoods to crumble, fostering rootless, embittered feelings of hopelessness and disenfranchisement that logically lead to anarchy. Nicholson opens the film with a brief, fiery montage that recaps the assassinations of the prominent political leaders in the 1960s who preached of tolerance and equality, quickly seguing into the disastrous construction project that gutted the Bronx, destroying its melting-pot populace and causing the moneyed to flee while the poor were stuck in a desolate urban jungle wasteland of brick and asphalt.
The film, though, is primarily concerned with the gangs that rose in the wake of that destruction, made up of kids and abandoned war vets who fashioned themselves as lethal thugs who fought over scraps of turf as a way of asserting a sense of compensatory control-freak dignity. Rubble Kings is at its best when reveling in the highs of the power fleetingly enjoyed in gang life. Nicholson makes no pretense of not responding to the braggadocio of the violence of a surprisingly organized micro-culture. Many of these gangs, which operated under names like the Ghetto Brothers, Savage Skulls, Harlem Turks, Dirty Ones, Tomahawks, and the Assassinators, had their own presidents, vice presidents, and even gestapo officers for jailing or killing gang members who failed to follow the rules of the game. And their fashion senses, from the intricately badged, stained jackets to the headwear, are the stuff of modern folklore. The filmmaker grooves on the irony of lawless people who’re desperate, deep down, to emulate the constrictions of WASP society, and the still-living ex-gang members interviewed here are often poetically cognizant of these conflicting urges for rebellion and structure.
Nicholson’s aesthetic conventionally but exhilaratingly mixes talking heads with archive news and privately filmed home-video footage. There are memorable images of gang warfare, including snippets of various hazing rituals (referred to as an Apache Trail), and a weirdly eerie moment in which several kids push down a shack that’s barely erected on an apartment tenement’s roof. Vitally debauched landscapes of gray, cracked, metallic, graffiti-pocked ghettos are worth more than a thousand words, and the editing feverishly complements the imagery with gang music, capturing the druggy highs of warfare. Nicholson acknowledges the gangs’ killings, the media’s sensationalistic exploitation of the crime waves, and the eventual unlikely fostering of peace within the Bronx, which was self-initiated by the gangs at obvious peril, eventually leading to the rise of hip-hop culture.
Nicholson’s aware of a pivotal, instructive moral inherent in the Bronx’s rehabilitation: Left adrift, these people grabbed the metaphorical reins of their lives and fostered their own infrastructure. But Rubble Kings, at a lightning-paced and far-too-short 67 minutes, never dramatizes this transition. To watch the film is to assume that these gangs, particularly the Ghetto Brothers, just awoke one day resolved to redeem their society, and this omission sentimentalizes the outlaws while robbing the audience of the context of a fascinatingly unlikely social turn-around. The universal, community-defining issue of money—i.e. the riddle of how the gangs are to live once going “straight”—is never broached, and John Leguizamo’s narration tritely reduces huge swaths of American history to moralistic fortune-cookie platitude. The film excitingly outlines a merging of propulsive aesthetics with a reasonably empathetic perspective, but it fails to go deep enough, suggesting an appetizer offered as an opening to an ultimately unserved meal.